Philip Levine: An Appreciation

Those who attend the services I lead know I incorporate a lot of poetry into worship. On the High Holidays I punctuate each service with poems, and each Friday evening, between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv, I read a poem–without commentary– as a kavannah (intention) for that Shabbat. The poem is drawn from the vast world of poetry, and chosen to reflect the season, or current events or simply a thought that arises that week.

I didn’t grow up reading a lot of poetry, I wasn’t an English major in college. What drew me in, what kindled my love of poetry, what taught me that a poem can touch the soul is a time about 20 years ago when, during a time of personal

Philip Levine
Philip Levine

transition that included much introspection, I came across a poem by Philip Levine. I feels almost too personal to share what was going on for me at that time (other than saying a general crossroads of young adulthood) or to share that particular poem. But Philip Levine touched me deeply.

Levine died earlier this week. Zichrono l’veracha–May his memory be for a blessing.

This poem came across my inbox this week from one of the poetry services to which I subscribe (poets.org). A choice selection: yesterday on the President’s Day holiday we took a ride out to Ocean Shores. With this beautiful weather and clear skies we were not only able to take in the ocean, but also the Olympics and Mount Rainier. Truly magnificent.

“Our Valley” by Phillip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

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